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Music is in the DNA: an interview with Keith Roberts of Young Dubliners

The Young Dubliners is a rock band (with Celtic influences) from Los Angeles. By phone, Keith Roberts (guitar, vocals) discussed the band's new album, touring, and appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

See The Young Dubliners at The Grove on Friday 14 March
David Safian

Why was it important to you to make Nine an independent project?

We'd thought about it for years. We never had the money in the past to do it. We'd be offered these record deals with great money. Then came all the baggage, the terrible precentage of the profit. It always rubbed us the wrong way, but we worked with good people. It just seemed like you couldn't make them do certain things you wanted them to do. You might have wanted to fly straight to New York but nobody would foot the bill. We just realized it was time when Kickstarter began and we saw the opportunity. We knew we had a big fan base that we've built for years. We figured we'd try. As soon as we tried it, it worked. We wanted to be able to make a record coming out of us naturally. That meant not being rushed by a silly release date. The downside is that we didn't have a release date, and there's nobody telling you to get it done, so you rewrite and rewrite. We did eventually crack the whip on ourselves. Ultimately, it was in our situation - eight albums under our belt, tour every year all over the world, have sort of a built-in following - it just seemed like the time was right for us to take the reins.

How was your creative process different than when you were with labels?

It really wasn't that different in the beginning. We'd meet in a room with our Magic Erase board and start riffing. Who's got ideas? What was different was that we had time to really get into these songs. We played them right. Slowly but surely, we got an idea of what we wanted to do. When I listened to the songs, I could clearly tell when I did something better. In terms of the writing, we did what we always do. We got together, we flowed with the ideas.

How long did it take to record this album?

I was afraid you'd ask that. From the initial sit-down, it took about 18 months. The reason for that is that in that period, we did probably 250 shows. We'd come back from the road and we'd have a week. Then we'd go meet with the producer and tell us he took another job because he didn't know what we wanted to do. We realized this was not a great way to do this. If you're going to do it this way, you have to be very prepared when you get into the studio. You have to be ready to go. We'd go in there and try to sort out ideas. We don't own the studio. It's our producer's and he has to make a living too. It was difficult. There were a lot of hurdles. We were ready to record, and he wasn't and we'd have to wait another month. It was so frustrating.

Ultimately are you more satisfied with Nine than with previous albums?

I'm definitely my own worst critic, and have been my whole career. I'm very hard on us. I hear the lyrics and still get tingles. I allowed myself to celebrate. I'm very proud of it. It's really from the reaction. A lot of bands make albums and they're happy with it because they're not good at criticizing. Maybe the producer loves them and is afraid to ask questions - "That song really shouldn't be 10 minutes long." It spawns that sense of accomplishment. We're the opposite. We beat the s**t out of each other and question everything. By the time it was done, I was so relieved. I was too close to the project to know what I'd done. Then I started doing interviews and touring and that's when I had people tell me they think it's the best work we've ever done. I was kind of blown away. Our fans are really happy with it. There are songs on there that people can relate to. There's a song about someone passing away, emigrating to a country you've never been to, songs about speaking your mind and being an active citizen. I feel like we put together a body of work that we can be proud of. Whether it's the best we've ever done, I haven't a clue.

You mentioned touring extensively. What's the best advice you can give young bands about touring?

Touring is a bit of a Catch-22 at the beginning. You want to tour, but no one knows who you are so they won't book you for a gig, let a lone pay you enough to survive on tour. You end up in a very tough situation. We got lucky. We had an EP with one song of ours on it, and that song is the one that got airplay. That immediately put us on the map in certain states like Colorado and parts of California. One idea is that you can take gigs in a lot of smaller towns in your area. That way you can tour without going too far from home and without it costing you an arm and a leg. If you sit around, it's not going to happen. I won't mention names, but there are a lot of bands I had high hopes for. They made great records, and then they just thought that everyone will hear it. The internet's so big now that everyone's going to hear it and love it, and you're going to be a big star. Then you find out four months later that nothing has happened. Touring is a way to get out there and let people here you live. You have to be a live band these days, play live well, and entertain people. Live shows are our biggest thing. We love making records, but the live show is what we do the most. We got good at it very quickly by playing as much as we did. If you look at iTunes, the reviews will make you laugh. "This is their best record uet, but you have to see them live." It's almost like a compliment disguised as a punch in the gut. It's like we're in competition with ourselves.

I have seen bands whose live show is better than the recording, but when I write about the recording, I try to talk about the energy.

At least half of my catalog is exactly that. We gigged every day for years, and we did albums every couple years. When we first met our producer, he didn't want to do it. He was working on movie soundtracks and he didn't really know what we wanted from him. I was convinced he was the guy because he's a guitar player, he's from Dublin where I'm from, he grew up listening to all the rock, but he knew about the traditional music. I really felt like I finally understood what we were supposed to be doing and how we were supposed to blend it. In the final mix sessions for Real World, I looked at the producer and said, "I love it. Who is that?" That was the quote from the end of the project. The early albums were bland. We didn't know how to do it right. At that point, we did.

Let me ask you about Jimmy Kimmel. What was your reaction the first time you played the show and what was your reaction when you were invited back?

The first time, we were blown away. We'd done Good Morning America from New York. We'd done a couple different things. Then Kimmel came along and it was like the big time had arrived. You only get invited here if you're considered a mainstay in American music. Of course it was St. Patrick's Day. We had so many gigs lined up for that day that we didn't think we could do it. One of our amazing supporters and friends offered us his jet. We played the Jimmy Kimmel Show in downtown L.A.. Then we had to jump in the jet to play San Diego that night. Kimmel was in the middle of Dancing with the Stars, where he'd introduce whoever had just gotten kicked off. We were waiting for that person. It turned out to be Belinda Carlisle. We're sitting there and it's getting later and later. Finally we're told we're going on. We did the show, then we were late to the show in San Diego. We got docked thousands of dollars. We still went on, but we went on 40 minutes late. We were the headliner. The crowd was 10,000 people just s**tfaced, getting ready to riot. We pull up, the tour bus is waiting to grab us at the airport. It looked very rock and roll and looked great, but it didn't feel very great. It was huge for us. Jimmy's crew dug us and told us we're easy to work with. They said, "You boys are a joy. We love your music." Jimmy comes up and says, "Any time you want to play on St. Patrick's Day, this is your show."

That's a great offer, but then St. Paddy's Day hit the weekend. The last time we did it, we actually recorded it the day before. There was no way we could have gotten away with it. We did it twice. The second time we did it, it felt like our show. You think you've arrived. The last two years, we haven't been able to do it. This year, it's on a Monday, which would have been perfect. They did offer it to us, but we're in downtown L.A. in the morning and Lake Tahoe that night. It's just physically impossible to do it. We're bummed out because it's such a fun show to do. All these things are great, but it's a conglomeration of it all. You need to have the TV show, radio, you're coming up on the right stations on Pandora. Nowadays, one television show isn't going to turn it around. There's not many people watching late-night TV.

What would you be doing if you weren't making music?

I'd be crying me eyes out and wondering why I wasn't making music. I have a degree in journalism and years ago, I would have said I'd be a TV reporter. I'd be the guy on the news. This is one thing I tell everyone. My band has been going for 20 years and the current lineup has been together for 14 years.They're not all the originals, but they feel like they are because they've been here so long. The only way we can do what we do is if you absolutely love it. My test for everyone is to say if you wake up in the morning and you imagine the band is gone, and if that doesn't make you sick to your stomach, then maybe you've had enough. You need to be into it. Everybody sees the 90 minutes of the goig and they just assume we're having a blast all the time. The truth is, we're doing the job we want to do, but the rest of the day is usually hell. You're on a van, a bus, or a plane. I've been at the airport now for five days in a row. I'm exhausted. I'll be home for two days, then I go to Texas, Orange County, Salt Lake City, Vegas, downtown L.A., and Lake Tahoe in five days. To want to do that, and to be able to do that, you really have to have a bug. It's not even a bug so much. It's in your DNA to the point where, whether you're enjoying it or not, you can't stop. We played last night. The crowd was fist-pumping, dancing, singing along. Without them, I probably wouldn't have the energy. The audience takes me somewhere else and for that we are so grateful.

See The Young Dubliners at The Grove in Anaheim on Friday 14 March.

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